The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Knopf, 163 pages ($25.95). They love him in France. But then British novelist and critic Julian Barnes is the author of the near universally revered "Flaubert's Parrot," so his repute is natural in the land of reverence for Jerry Lewis (which convinced almost no one) and Edgar Allan Poe (which once changed the minds of everyone).
On the other extreme, when this novel by the 65-year-old Julian Barnes won England's coveted Man Booker prize a couple weeks ago (on publication here, it merely said on the cover "short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize"), smart alecks at USA Today complained of the prize being given to a novel so short and yet so tedious. In the middle, somewhere between the French and the snark attacks from USA Today, you will find in Christopher Hitchens' memoir "Hitch-22" that Barnes is one of those -- along with Hitchens, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie (who informed Barnes of his Booker win) -- luminaries who annually sits down with friends to the heirs of Friday lunches 30 years ago that were, in Barnes' words, "shouty, argumentative, smoky, boozing gathering[s] attended by journalists, novelists, poets and cartoonists at the end of another working week." Barnes, according to the now cancer-battling Hitchens, is the one who now puts in his hearing aids before sitting down at table.
He's also the one who writes this fiction of typically dry brilliance about the unreliability of memory and the insurmountable mysteries of being alive. In it, a comfortably divorced and reflective retired man Barnes' age (mid-60s) recives a thoroughly unexpected bequest from the mother of an old girlfriend which includes both a small amount of money and the diary of the old girlfriend's next paramour Adrian. Which, in turn, is not as easily gotten hold of as bequested.
The ending here leaves some readers flummoxed and peevish and others tantalized. One of the great English language writers? Or the product of a long successful conspiracy of literary friends? Your choice -- but hard not to see the case for the former.
-- Jeff Simon